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VALLEY PERSPECTIVE

Term Limits Are Not the Answer

November 12, 2000|MATTHEW CAHN | Matthew Cahn is a professor of public policy at California State Northridge and co-author of the forthcoming book "Rethinking California: Politics and Policy in the Golden State" (Prentice Hall)

In 1990, 52% of California voters voted for Proposition 140, limiting the number of terms that state legislators could serve. Under Proposition 140, Assembly members may serve a maximum of three terms (six years) and senators are limited to a maximum of two terms (eight years).

California's term limits law--one of the most restrictive in the nation--creates a lifetime ban on running for the state Legislature after being termed out.

Term limits were sold as the solution to the stale political back-rooming that has long dogged public office. With forced turnover, it was argued, the Legislature would be more accessible and responsive. Proponents of Proposition 140 argued that back-room dealing would be replaced by the open politics of competitive elections.

More than anything else, term limits may have succeeded in ending the imperial speakership typified by Jesse Unruh and Willie Brown. But the alternative seems to be the new phenomenon of "speaker for a day," where ambitious legislators fight to have a chance at leadership. Since Brown was termed out in 1994, California has had six speakers.

Greater stability in the speakership surely may be an asset. The speaker of the Assembly has long been regarded as one of the most important offices in the state. Other than the governor, no one commands more centralized power, visibility and control over legislation.

Traditionally, speakers have dominated the Assembly, presiding over all floor action, selecting all chairs and vice chairs of committees, and distributing all resources of the chamber--including office space, additional staff and larger district budgets for sympathetic allies.

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Speakers have maintained party discipline by centralizing campaign contributions from influential interests that seek favor with the majority party. During Assembly elections, the speaker has traditionally used his or her campaign war chest and campaign consultants on behalf of the party faithful to win or retain legislative seats. Once a member was elected--aided in large part by the speaker's generosity--the member was expected to be loyal to the speaker's leadership and agenda.

In the post-Willie Brown era, speakers must quickly advance their agendas and seek new governing coalitions to cement their leadership. Their ability to quickly solicit campaign funds is essential if they are going to support party colleagues. And with less time for any speaker to serve, there is even greater incentive to aggressively seek contributions.

Robert M. Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks), the San Fernando Valley's first speaker since 1974, has used this power effectively, which bodes well for the region. The $100-billion state budget has some $400 million earmarked for the Valley--from the rapid bus corridor to a children's museum at Hansen Dam.

But it is uncertain whether such regional power plays are good for California overall. What happens when the next speaker is elected? Will the Valley be ignored for another quarter of a century?

Term limits term out the good legislators with the bad, as we have seen with Richard Katz, who lost in one of the Valley's most destructive primaries to Richard Alarcon (D-Sylmar). The Democrats would have been equally well represented by Katz or Alarcon as state senator. Katz, termed out of the Assembly, and Alarcon, emerging from a strong position from the Los Angeles City Council, waged a war that few benefited from, certainly not the northeastern Valley.

Tom Hayden, termed out of the Senate, has been an effective progressive voice for a generation. Hayden's open seat brought a bruising primary battle between Sheila Kuehl and Wally Knox, giving constituents a tough choice between two effective Assembly members termed out before their political contributions peaked.

Love 'em or hate 'em, veteran legislators are far more capable in delivering for their constituents than the freshmen who line up to fill their shoes.

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In short, term limits have not made government more responsive. The relationship between legislative turnover and greater public access is intuitive at best, with no data to bear it out. In fact, the tool of choice for political influence continues to be campaign contributions, which are higher now than they have ever been. Soliciting contributions is a primary function of serving in the Legislature since election cycles are every two years and spending pressure is ever higher.

The total expenditures for state legislative races have risen steadily. Candidate spending in general elections went from a per-candidate average of $34,000 in 1976 to $296,000 in 1998. Ironically, term limits may have upped the ante by reducing the number of safe seats, creating more competitive races requiring ever more special interest support.

So who fills the vacuum in experience and political networks left when veteran legislators are termed out? Legislative staff and lobbyists. If back-room politicking and political favoritism are the problems, term limits have not proven to be the answer--stronger limits on political contributions have. After all, what ever happened to voting for the candidate of your choice?

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